February is Black History month, and in Hamilton the 16th annual John C. Holland awards are kicking off the celebration.

The awards ceremony recognizes and celebrates excellence in Hamilton’s African Canadian community.

“It’s a time to reflect on past achievements and embrace the future in terms of supporting young people and the community,” says Evelyn Myrie, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, a supporter of the awards.

The ceremony will be held on February 1 at 6:00 p.m. at the Michelangelo Banquet Centre.

This year, in addition to prizes for African Canadian achievement in business and the arts, the first ever Nelson Mandela Award will be given to a Hamilton young person.

Nelson Mandela Award

Inspired by the late South African president, the Mandela award will be given to a young person who has displayed a strong interest in human rights and social justice.  The recipient will also receive a $1000 scholarship for post-secondary studies. 

Myrie says that Mandela’s legacy in Canada’s black communities is an important one.

“Living by our convictions, bringing people together to find solutions, looking at the bigger picture…these are the things that Mandela stood for” and those are the qualities that each of the Holland award winners must posses, she said.

The awards are named after the Reverend John Christie Holland.

Born in Hamilton in 1882 to parents who escaped slavery in the United States, Holland worked for thirty-three years as a railway porter and attendant. In 1924, he became an ordained Minister, and served as Pastor of Stewart Memorial Church, a provincially designated historical site for its connection to the Underground Railroad.

In 1953, Hamilton honoured Holland as its ‘Citizen of the Year,’ the first African Canadian to win the award.

'So much work to be done'

African Canadians have made significant progress in Canadian society over the years- certainly since Reverend Holland’s lifetime- but there are still challenges facing the black community, according to Myrie.

“Racial discrimination has become more covert in Canada. When you look across the landscape…you see leadership roles are still elusive. You see issues of exclusion. Systemic discrimination is still there. On the surface it appears that things have gone away, but look at the poverty rates, the education rates, the unemployment rates, the incarceration rates. We have made progress, but there is so much work to be done.”

Though the Holland Awards are given to African Canadians, organizers like Myrie emphasize that the event is not just for the black community.

“What we want is Hamiltonians in all of their diversity celebrating Black History month. It’s for everyone. We want you to celebrate with us…and develop a bond to make Hamilton a better place for all of us.”